I guess Dustin Hoffman must love Opera enough to make it a backdrop of his debut directorial effort in Quartet, set in an English retirement home for musicians, which provides him opportunity to put together a stellar ensemble cast of acting peers, as well as paying homage to a number of real life, retired Operatic, musician and stage greats in a tale that tackles the anxieties and issues of famous people growing old. Not the poor, but those able to afford a swanky upmarket retirement home with peers as house-mates, making quite the difference.
Based on the stage play of the same name by Ronald Harwood, who also adapted it into the film's screenplay, Quartet centers around the Beecham Home, where its retirees are getting busy with preparation work for their annual gala, a fund-raiser which will keep their home for the aged going for the year since the ticketed event will cover operating costs. And this self-sustaining model works, given the big names amongst their ranks of ex-stars and retirees who are here because of the lack of family, provided that they keep their ego in check, can work under the bellowing direction of Cedric Livingston (Michael Gambon), and if illness doesn't come and rob them of their health.
Growing old is inevitable, and with it comes the robbing on one's stamina, sometimes patience, and with little time left, whether one desires to make the most of it, or dwell on the past of victorious glories, or the preference to wallow in regrets. With four key characters here, the full spectrum of emotions and challenges get spread out evenly, each with their own set of problems and attitudes that get in the way, or provide for someone else's solution.
Billy Connolly steals the show as Wilf Bond, someone who doesn't take life too seriously now given the looming expiry date, and is living to the fullest as much as he can. He's rather cavalier in his attitude, with drink, wine and flirting with the resident doctor Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith) at any opportunity, adopting a demeanour and spouting lines that makes him a likely crowd favourite. His best friend Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay), on the other hand becomes uptight when his ex-wife Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) comes to stay at Beecham Home, making it quite unbearable with her sheer presence. We'll learn what had estranged their relationship as this gets teased as we move along the narrative, and the chance of reconciliation being frequently torpedoed with egos clashing and insults being traded.
But perhaps it's Pauline Collins as Cissy Robson which is the more moving story element, where one gets ravaged by a disease that gets worse over time. I suppose anything that has to do with the mind, either paralyzing it, or deteriorating it, is more than cruel enough a way for someone getting into his or her twilight. Cissy is that chirpy dame at Beecham Home who is frequently late or misses appointments, and Hoffman leaves it to late before showing hand, making it all the more heart-wrenching in the last act, as you'd soon grow to enjoy Cissy's presence, and wonder if anything can be done to stall such cruel diseases.
Dustin Hoffman shows steady direction in his debut as feature film director, and didn't opt for anything fancy. Just straight, solid direction to engage the audience, and tell a story about the twilight years, which year on year recently there's something put out for its intended demographics (last year it was The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Amour). Fans of Opera will find joy in the many pieces of music and singing, plus some iconic stars of the community making an appearance here. Given that this is no zero to hero story since the characters were all stars of their respective years, it will be a slap to authenticity if the director allowed the non-stars to sing out loud, and made the right decision in the way the final, expectant scene got played out.
Ultimately, story mattered, and the cast did their best with their characters, making it one engaging tale with elderly characters dealing with the inevitable in the final stages of life, making the most out of it, contributing through their talents where necessary, and reaffirming relationships being the best course of action at such a late stage. An enjoyable number.